With the sun setting on the Trump presidency, Jorge Ramos has compiled a report card on the performance of the national media. It is not favorable. “We journalists should have been tougher on Mr. Trump, questioning his every lie and insult,” writes Ramos, a Univision anchor, in an op-ed for the New York Times. “We should not have let him get away with his racism and xenophobia. We should never again allow someone to create an alternative reality in order to seize the presidency.”

The focus of Ramos’s critique is the period between June 16, 2015 — when Donald Trump joined the presidential race — and Nov. 8, 2016 — when he won. About two months after Trump’s entrance, at an event in Dubuque, Iowa, Ramos famously confronted the candidate over his racist immigration comments in a news conference. “Excuse me, sit down, you weren’t called. Sit down, sit down. Sit down,” replied Trump. Ramos attempted to make his point: “I have the right to ask a question,” said the anchor. A security guard booted Ramos from the room, though he was later allowed to reenter.

Little came of the clash, as Ramos lamented in his op-ed: “After my confrontation with Mr. Trump, several journalists expressed their solidarity with me. And yet, strangely and dangerously, the incident failed to shift the media’s obsessive coverage of Mr. Trump, which over time normalized his rude, abusive and xenophobic behavior.”

The Ramos incident was one among several Trump incidents that failed to shift, well, anything. The atrocities — against the media, against immigrants and minorities, against decency, against democracy — started piling up, and they haven’t stopped. If the media had been tougher, suggests Ramos, the outcome could have been different: “Perhaps it was the pandemic that was most responsible for putting an end to Mr. Trump’s presidency,” writes Ramos. “But the entire debacle might have been avoided if we had simply paid greater attention — and offered more resistance — to the words and gestures of the undeserving man who descended the golden escalator of Trump Tower in 2015.”

Scholars and pundits may never stop reexamining the conduct of the news media during Trump’s ascent. There is so much to chew over, including:

  • The decision of the cable-news networks to carry Trump’s rallies live. CNN has gained a great deal of notoriety on this front — perhaps because its network president expressed regret for it — but all three of the major names in cable news did it.
  • The struggle to keep up with Trump’s lies. Though fact-checking had been a thing in U.S. politics for several presidential cycles, journalists weren’t prepared for Trump’s shamelessness.
  • The wall-to-wall coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails. A Harvard study found that it was the No. 1 topic of coverage related to Clinton’s fitness for office and fed into a sense of false equivalency in the treatment of the two candidates.

On the other hand: News organizations responded with full condemnations of Trump’s campaign-trail atrocities, including his labeling of Mexican immigrants as rapists, his call for a Muslim immigration ban, his smear of Sen. John McCain and his degradation of the media. They also investigated Trump’s personal and business history, yielding big stories on lawsuits against him, his treatment of workers, the way he built his real estate business and many, many more.

Even if Ramos could go back and direct a more aggressive media response to Trump’s 2016 candidacy, we here at the Erik Wemple Blog have our doubts that “the entire debacle might have been avoided.” That’s because the media’s outrage over Trump’s indiscretions was an important motivator for Trump’s backers in the first place. The cycle became predictable: Trump did something offensive; the media denounced him; Trump cited the media backlash as just another instance of media bias; supporters crammed into his rallies. It’s possible that “tougher” coverage would have deepened his appeal.

We live in a time of media determinism, which is to say that too often, people attribute far too much power to news organizations. A good example surfaced upon the publication of author Bob Woodward’s book “Rage.” As it turned out, Trump had told Woodward on Feb. 7 of this year that coronavirus was “deadly stuff,” triggering a backlash against the author for holding on to that detail until this fall’s book release. Woodward could have saved lives by publishing the comment in a timely manner, went the criticism.

Or: The comment would have blended into a stream of other stupid, baseless and pointless remarks from the president, affecting nothing. That is the Trump presidency.

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